Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday at the Radiocroft...

...and we're talking mail order disasters (or at least surprises, like the 20 chrome ethernet sockets that arrived yesterday). Unexpected brushes with the law ('allo, 'allo, 'allo, Mr Green...) cover versions that are better than the original and something else that just slipped my mind...oh yes! Forgetfulness. That and embarrassing moments in garages. The engine, sir, is in the back...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

So, I was in this teashop in Athens, Georgia... the summer of 1986, when in comes the owner. On a bicycle.

Can you guess who it is yet?

The wonder of Woolies, secret crushes and pleading ignorance

Yesterday on the show we nattered about driving tests and strange rockstar names (and those of their children, such as Dweezil Zappa, Zowie Bowie and -most recently- Bronx Mowgli Wendt). Woodside Wullie brought up the demise of Woolworths, and blamed himself - for a shoplifting incident (Dusty in Memphis on vinyl) and his offspring's abuse of the Pick'n'Mix counter.

This unleashed a host of memories: Embassy Records, Woolies' own label; Rigonda TVs and record players, cheap and appalling, all the way from Russia; Audition guitars, the worst you could get. Ladybird kids' clothes and cheap cut-out LPs...

No wonder they've gone bust...

Today, as the tragic international news just gets worse and Robert Peston continues to rant about house price drops, I'm taken (and hey, it's early yet) with this: Polish border guards said Wednesday they had foiled an attempt to smuggle kangaroos, miniature ponies and 11 pheasants in a passenger bus across Poland's border with Ukraine. The bus driver pleaded ignorance. 'I know nothing....nuuutheeeng!' How many of us have said that all too many times? And also Chris Martin from Coldplay's announcement that he has a 'shameful crush' on sometime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the Alaskan bear-skinner. Unlikely attractions to public figures, anyone? C'mon, confession is good for the soul!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New whisky blog - Drinking for Scotland

The demise of the Nippy Sweeties blog, along with two whisky columns I was writing (for the US publication Scottish Life and The Scots Magazine) was provoked by several things: exhaustion, unhealthiness, the need to complete a novel and a complete absence of anything worth saying.

Now, with the book finished (Serpentine: due for publication next June by Mainstream) and some rest and recuperation, I'm back thinking (and writing) about drinking. The new blog is here. In print, too, as a contributor and regular columnist for Unfiltered, the superb new magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

All this and The Malt and Barley Revue - the hour-long musical show I've put together about whisky, Scotland and inebriation - has been a quiet success this past summer. My book Spirit of Adventure, republished, is selling well in the runup to Christmas, and is available here.

So I'm back in the whisky blogosphere. I'll be publishing some of the print-only articles from the past couple of years, and, from first principles, some tasting notes.

And news as it comes in. Robert Ransom from Glenfarclas sent me the following, and as the 105 10-year-old is one of my all-time favourites, I'm happy to say...Slainte!

Speyside, November 2008; J. & G. Grant are pleased to announce the release of Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength Aged 40 Years, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bottling of Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky.

The first commercially available cask strength whisky of the modern age was born in 1968 when George S. Grant, the fourth generation of the Grant family to own and manage Glenfarclas, bottled a single cask straight from the warehouse, and sent the bottles to family and friends as Christmas gifts. By chance the strength of the cask George S. Grant selected was 105 British Proof, and along with the name of the distillery, this was all the information he detailed on the hand written label. By the end of January the recipients of the gifts requested further bottles, George S. Grant obliged, and Glenfarclas 105 has become a much enjoyed expression of Glenfarclas.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bottling of Glenfarclas 105; J. & G. Grant have created this special limited edition bottling of Glenfarclas 105 at 40 Years Old, and at 60% Vol.. With only a couple of casks of the right style, age, and strength available, the Glenfarclas 105 Aged 40 Years truly is a limited edition. There are only 893 bottles available.

George S. Grant’s grandson, also George S. Grant, the company’s Brand Ambassador,

commented, ‘Dark and mysterious in colour, with hints of toffee and sherry, a sip reveals a powerful, yet smooth and elegant whisky. It has taken three generations of my family to create this extraordinary dram.’

Glenfarclas 105 Aged 40 Years has been well received, scoring 96 out of 100 in Jim Murray’s 2009 Whisky Bible. This limited edition is available from specialist whisky retailers in the UK, Europe and Asia, and retails for £550.00 at the Glenfarclas Distillery Visitor centre.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom Morton show in full flight from The Radiocroft (well, actually, while a record was playing)

The Tom Morton Show is brought to you by BBC Radio Scotland. Online, on FM, Medium wave, on your digital telly and by clamping a wet piece of string between two amalgam fillings (but not during electrical storms, please).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A question of light

At this time of year in Shetland (now officially possessing the highest quality of life in Scotland, whatever that means) you've got to grab whatever daylight there is and try to absorb as much as you can. Even in windily icy conditions like those we have today.

So Susan and I took the dogs up to Eshaness for a wee wander. We were heavily layered up in fleece/fleece/Goretex, and the Russian proverb did, for once seem, accurate: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. The poor old dogs had to make do with what God gave them, but they seemed happy enough. Shiveringly invigorated, we watched Ronnie out creeling and the fisheries protection gunboat doing nothing in particular, and wondered what conditions were like out at sea. Time to go home!

The peat-fired Rayburn is on and we're anticipating a further, short walk tonight up to the hotel for dinner. More snow tomorrow, so they say...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bitterly cold in Hillswick, and the end of newspapers, again

Not as much snow as expected this morning, and the predicted severe gales are just bitter and brutal breezes. However, much more extreme weather is expected later today and tomorrow. If I sound a little disappointed, it's just that I take a childlike delight in snow. It's always fun to see a St Bernard plunging through the drifts!
Meanwhile, news that the Johnston Press (owners of The Scotsman and loads of local newspapers) share price has fallen within 18 months from £6 to 6 pence. Much fulminating about the possible end of printed newspapers in the face of online competition.
Maybe. But as I write, they're queuing - yes queuing - at the Hillswick shop to buy this morning's Shetland Times. Local newspapers with an effective online strategy (and the Shetland Times pioneered that) seem pretty safe prospects to me, if not the licenses to print money they once were. Now, combine a local newspaper with a proper online presence AND a local radio station (or even a morning news programme online) and you'd be covering all the angles.
Meanwhile, it looks like the Scotsman will be sold, again. Hot bets are on either The Herald taking over (an historic blasphemy, surely!) or the family owned DC Thomson. As a practising freelance hack who has worked for everyone on the Scottish newspaper scene, I can say this: Thomsons are pros and pay promptly and better than most. And despite anything you may hear, in my experience they treat their journalists well. They're also financially secure. Unlike everybody else.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hot Hot Heat! And all from peat!

I'm currently trying to keep peat stoves going in two different houses...this is the Radiocroft pot-bellied Machine Mart stove, making the TM Show the only peat-fired radio programme on earth, probably. Along at the hoose, I've lit (or litten, as they say in Shetland) the Rayurn and have left it with two chickens in the top oven. It's a gamble, but if push comes to shove, there's always the microwave. Unless the wind takes out the power lines again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Home, and how to buy a Book'n'a Bevvy

Slept for 12 hours on the north boat, with occasional wakings for particularly bumpy bits of sea. And that's the last Phenergan outing (I hope) until the new year. It's great to be back in Shetland after nearly three weeks away in Glasgow, Ireland, Lewis, Inverness, Ullapool, Aberdeen and all points inbetween. Some good work was done, I think. But it's all been very tiring.

Just nipped round to our neighbour Fiona's new craft shop, which is going to be really fantastic when it opens. She's running the Designed in Shetland website which offers all sorts of locally-produced goodies for sale. She's got a special offer for Christmas of my whisky book, Spirit of Adventure, bundled with a miniature of Highland Park whisky and with an inscription of your choice by the author. It's a Book'n'a Bevvy for just £11.99! Bargain!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dundee, the legend of The Gunga Din, and chicken livers at The Malabar

To Dundee, home of some of the greatest pubs in the universe - this time, The Speedwell, universally known as Mennie's, and The Phoenix, universally known as Bannerman's. And to the magnificent Malabar on Perth Road, home of Goanese and Keralan cooking.

For those of a certain age, Jacob, who owns the Malabar, will be remembered as proprietor of the legendary Gunga Din, also in Perth Road. In the late 60s and 70s, this was lauded by the cognoscenti as the best place to eat 'Indian' food in Scotland. A favourite of rock stars (and especially Billy Connolly), at a time when Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurateurs were setting the tone for 'the Scottish curry', the Gunga Din was always different. And the Malabar still is.

It's unpretentious. Formica tables, basic decor. It's not dear. (Bottle of Montepulciano, very good, £10.99). And the food is astonishing. I had chicken livers in chili sauce to start, followed by marinated trout fillets served with daal, boiled rice, salad and a nan bread unlike any other. Everything here is different. The Saag Gosht is intense in a way it never is in the 'common pot' school of Asian cookery; even the spiced onions are dark and much more like a real chutney than chilli-powdered red-raw slices.

The trout (can't remember its Goan name)is similar to the salmon dish served at Balbir's in Glasgow, and there are similarities to some of the Mother India and experimental Wee Curry Shop recipes to be found on he menu.

But the Malabar truly is the motherlode.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ron Mathewson - Shetland's forgotten genius of the double bass

It was my old friend and colleague Ian Leask (drummer and philosopher) who first mentioned the name 'Ron Mathewson' to me, and since then I've been tracing his incredible jazz career through various websites. Best to start with Wikipedia, but if I say that he played or recorded with, to name just a few, Ronnie Scott,Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Ben Webster, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Tubby Hayes, Dick Morrissey, Ian Carr and here with Johnny Griffin....that should give some indication if his ability. I've ordered a couple of the albums he plays on (just to show my son James, in-house bassist, what it's all about).

Details of Ron's current activities are difficult to find. I had heard he no longer played, indeed, no longer had a bass, but gave occasional lessons in London. If anybody can help with information, without trespassing on his privacy, I'd appreciate it.

In the meantime, this is just unbelievable, thrilling stuff. It's the Ronnie Scott quartet, plus (in the first video) Johnny Griffin. On Green Dolphin Street features, at about 2.35, an astonishing bass solo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A pint of Mongrel, please, and a hangover to go.

Out for a pint at the Three Judges in Partick with my old pal Stewart, and as his long-lived mongrel Clio had just passed away, we decided to toast her memory in a pint of this. Afterwards, I was feeling just a bit...ruff!

The worst meal I've had in Glasgow since the great tripe disaster of 1978

We went there because we were in a hurry, Papingo was full and Atrio wasn't. Mistake. Cullen Skink? I think not. I had a superb Cullen Skink at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool last Tuesday night, made to the classic recipe: chunks of tattie, smoked haddock, cream, onion. Atrio provided something of a contrast. Five minutes after everyone else had finished their (adequate) starters, I was served a bowl of tepid, creamy, salty water, sprinkled with chopped chives. At the bottom was what looked like reconstituted dried onion. No fish. No potato. I sent it back, protesting on behalf of Cullen and indeed all Skink everywhere.

Worse was to come: The attractive menu description of the veggie option was: aubergine with cous cous on a bed of rocket. What I got was this massive deep-fried lump of inedible leathery leather-substitute. Closer investigation showed that a thick slice of aubergine had been char grilled, coated with a pungent pink paste, then DEEP FRIED in a coating of cous cous. It was beyond appalling.

Service was delightful, the wine was chilled, the chips and vegetables were good. Magnus and Laura said their chicken and risotto were both good. Perhaps I was being punished for something.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Road Equivalent Tariff - now THERE'S an Idea....and the excellent Ralia Cafe

Sounds boring, but Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) is a system aimed at encouraging tourism and business in the Scottish islands. Basically, you charge for ferry trips what the equivalent would be if you drove the same distance. Roughly. All is explained here. The pilot project has just started (I've only just realised)on the various mainland-Outer Hebrides routes, including the Ulapool-Stornoway ferry I've just been on.
So that was £87 return for me and the Citroen. They're calculating the cost on the basis of 60p per nautical mile and £5 per car. So for Shetland, that would be, uh, 400-odd miles return to Aberdeen, making it, £240. Plus a cabin. And two meals.
Hmm...that seems somewhat dearer than what we pay at the moment. Maybe NOT such a good idea for the Ultimate Seaborne Commute, and the longest ferry trip in UK waters.
I'm back in Glasgow, missing Shetland and home, but Susan, James and Martha are heading south next Wednesday for a jaunt, so we will be panting various towns red then during and after Children in Need.

Got the ferry out of Stornoway (latest check-in 6.30am) and it was a very reasonable 2 hours and 45 minutes to Ullapool in a choppy but not brutal sea. Calmac Lorne sausage was fine! But let me recommend the Ralia Cafe just outside Dalwhinnie on the A9 - great soup, wonderful views, and the owner is an A9 traveller who knows what folk really want - great service, free internet, phone charging. Proper coffee too.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Stornoway, Tolsta, lamb tikka bhuna and an imminent storm...

To Tolsta this morning, with Dave Halliday and his Harley Sportster 1200, photographer John Maclean and the trusty, very far from home Citroen C4 (why are so many Citroen C4 four-doors metallic maroon? I saw ANOTHER one today). It was freezing, but spectacular. Again, that amazing Lewis phenomenon of bleakness suddenly giving way to astonishing coastal beauty.
Back to Stornoway for the show, a quick look round the An Lanntair gallery/cinema/cafe/theatre, which has great coffee but looks very quiet. I wonder if the progenitors of the controversial Shetlandic music venue and cinema, Mareel, have looked at Ann Lanntair's books?
Anyway, old acquaintance from Harris Willie Fulton has an exhibition there, and his paintings are not only superb, but very reasonably priced. Check out his online gallery here.
There's a very bad forecast for tomorrow (gales, possibly severe) so I've changed my departure to the 07.15 ferry for Ullapool. There's a lunchtime boat from Stornoway and one from Harris to Skye around the same time. If they don't sail, there's nothing until Monday.
It's been an interesting few days in Lewis. Compared to Shetland, it feels...well, it feels much less...wealthy. And it's not just the Zetland County Council Act's 30 years of oil cash.
Well, actually it is. People talk about the religion thing, but compared to 15 years ago, its grip is much, much looser. In the face of a nosediving economy, and the departure for Glasgow and points south of the most talented young folk, fundamentalist protestantism may be a consolation for the elderly and the left behind. But letters in the Stornoway Gazette complaining about a "Heaven and Hell" fancy dress ball seem quaint and somewhat sad. Surely God has more urgent concerns? I hear that drug convictions and alcohol-related violence have soared lately.
There is a kind of resigned anger about the largest Harris Tweed mill laying off workers, and its owner having jackets made up to only four designs. In China. It's a glorious substance, Harris Tweed, and I've coveted a suit for years. But when faced with £200 for a tweed jacket, I had to sneak out of the shop. In the distance, I could hear Primark calling.
The folk here have been delightful - friendly and hospitable. The BBC team have been splendid. The Balti House is a really good Indian restaurant and I'm sorry to have missed the Thai Cafe and Digby Chicks. But I'm praying for the Isle of Lewis to set sail on time tomorrow.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Lewis, more Norse than Gaelic?

I kept seeing place names that were familiar from Shetland: Mangersta, Mealista, Kirkibost (same as Kirkibister); the photographer I'm working with, John Maclean, told me that most Lewis place names are Norse in origin, though many have been Gaelicised. Much of Lewis even looks like Shetland, in its bleak bogland. But it's a lot more mountainous and the beaches are on a bigger, blonder scale.

The oak sculpture of a Lewis Chessman is by Stephen Hayward, and is sited near where that legendary set was found, in a stone chest covered by a sand dune. The beach at Ardriol, seen here from Carnish, is fantastic.

I'm working on a magazine story in Lewis and I've been asked not to reveal anything about it, which is understandable, but annoying: It's a truly fantastic tale. All will be revealed, eventually.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Heavenly Nescafe on Rannoch Moor, and a stag at (parking) bay

I took a last-minute decision this morning to take the westerly route from Glasgow to Inverness, by Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Fort William and Loch Ness. It's four hours, as opposed to three and a bit, but what a wonderful drive. All of the Highlands' autumnal glories were on display, and by the time I hit Rannoch Moor, the sun was breaking through the low cloud to spectacular effect.
Nescafe and a bacon roll from the caravan at the Black Mount car park was, I pondered, like having a snack in heaven. I didn't realise the cairn next to the snackvan, commemorating the Munro of all those mountainous Munroes, contains a stone from every peak in Scotland over 3000 feet high.
And this car-park has its own stag, though rather a wee one. Lots of notices saying not to feed him; lots of people ignoring them. Note the carrots.
It's the same with ducks, in my experience...only not with carrots.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Old Bushmills I staggered...'d bury the dagger/in your silhouette window light go... Ah, there's nothing like a bit of Tom Waits's Tom Traubert's Blues (that's Waits Mark One, when he had proper tunes), especially in the vicinity of Bushmills itself, which is a real village, with a pub called The Distiller's Arms.
Sandy, Elaine and I had the six quid tour (good bit dearer than most Scottish distilleries), which includes a choice of free drams but, due to maintenance, no access to the (triple still) stillroom, always the highlight of distillery visits for me. Never mind, it was all really enjoyable and the place is beautiful, especially considering its size. This is very nearly industrial whisky production - the bottling lines alone are massive. It's a bit like Glenfiddich on steroids.
Great cafe with all home-made food, Irish stew and Pavlova the highlights, and a gift shop with some seriously desirable stuff, including a Great Gatsby-style Irish tweed cap which I narrowly avoided buying. I bought a half-price bar towel. The 12-year-old malt is very sweet but good.
Had a wee walk by the shores of Lough Neagh, the biggest (by area) body of fresh water in the UK. What a great place for casual boating and especially canoeing! When I come back for the North West 200 I'll bring my paddle.
Caught Quantum of Solace at the Ritz multiplex in Cookstown, and loved it. It is VERY Jason Bourne-ish...The Bourne Ultimatum second unit director did all the action scenes, Sandy told me...and the rooftop chase/fighting with every day objects material/handheld car chase material is derivative, but none the worse for it.
Anyway, to Belfast today for the show, with everyone locally breathing huge sighs of relief after yesterday's parade and protests in the city. One broken windscreen, one arrest. Times change. I remember my first visit here in 1978 as a terrified young hack, with the whole place looking broken and half-dead. what a difference. Belfast is fairly sparkling this morning. Still can't get used to policemen with handguns, though.
Back to Glasgow tonight, then Inverness in the morning. Ullapool and Stornoway still to come.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Giant's Causeway, Portrush and the delights of Northern Ireland

Arrived at George Best Belfast City Airport yesterday courtesy of FlyBe, on time and in good shape, and then got comprehensively lost trying to get the hire car (petrol, not diesel, so I kept stalling it)out of Belfast and onto the Cookstown road. Not helped by the SaNav, which refused to recognise the existence of the BT80 postcode I was heading for.
Anyway. Arrived at Cookstown ('The Retail Capital of Mid-Ulster') to find it M&S Food, a giant Tesco and reputedly the widest streets in Northern Ireland. Not to mention some of the worst traffic. Northern Ireland is rural but heavily populated: well-groomed fields, high hedges and lots of houses. There's absolutely no sense of remoteness.
I called Sandy and his wife Elaine came and rescued me from the temptations of Tesco. They live in an idyllic spot not far away, down a corkscrewing set of one-and-a-half track roads, where nobody brakes for anything oncoming short of a juggernaut and horns are sounded all the time, mainly, it seemed to me, for fun. It's a bit like driving in Madrid, only grassier.
Lunch (I had imported half a dozen well-fired Glasgow rolls) and then we headed off to the Giant's Causeway, which is one of those natural phenomena that lives up to expectations in every way. It's really hard to believe that the rock formations are not man-made, and it goes on and on. It was genuinely thrilling to see it.
Tea in Portrush, the perjink (how do you spell that) Blackpool of Ulster, at a really excellent restaurant called 55 North. Slow-cooked lamb shank was splendid.
And Cuillin the husky-labrador cross got the bone.